Sensory art installation DX17 marks IWM Duxford’s centenary year
2017 marks the centenary of Imperial War Museums (IWM) and 100 years since work began to create RAF Duxford. This landmark occasion has been commemorated with the creation of DX17*, Duxford’s first ever contemporary art installation. DX17 is open to visitors from today (Friday 16 June).
Inspired by themes of flight and innovation, DX17 is a dramatic large-scale sculpture, similar in size to a Spitfire, futuristic and aerodynamic in form. DX17 is presented in a dramatic darkened space providing an immersive experience for visitors.
One hundred bright lights are emitted by the sculpture, each representing one of 100 discoverable ‘memories’. Holding a receiver in the palm of one hand, the visitor can scan the device over the surface of the sculpture and magically transform these points of light into sound, effectively ‘tuning in’ to the sound of up to 100 voices.
A further sound system surrounds the sculpture providing a cinematic soundscape in which elements received through the headphones are dramatised around the listener. Sounds featured in the soundscape include Morse Code messages that reference the sculpture’s name, fragments of historically significant music (including Judy Garland’s Somewhere Over the Rainbow, which was the last song heard by airmen in the Officers’ Mess before they scrambled to action) and original ambisonic recordings of a Duxford-based Spitfire performing a high speed, low altitude manoeuvre known as a 'run and break’, captured especially for the project.
DX17 has been created by BAFTA award-winning multi-disciplinary artist Nick Ryan whose previous projects have included Tate Sensorium, an immersive multi-sensory exhibition at Tate Britain and A Living River, the world’s largest brand sound installation, currently on display at Gatwick Airport.
Artist Nick Ryan said: “I wanted to create a sensory artwork that allows the many people whose lives have been shaped by this unique and special place to speak for themselves and to transmit their memories to us in a direct and palpable way. DX17 is a sculptural object symbolising the extraordinary achievement of flight and making sense of 100 years of memories through sound, light and touch.”
Diane Lees, Director-General of Imperial War Museums said: “Nick Ryan’s DX17 commemorates Duxford’s centenary in a unique way that really reflects the wonderment of aviation and the unique history of the site. This futuristic sound sculpture will surprise and fascinate visitors, enabling them to physically and emotionally engage with personal stories of Duxford’s past and present, immersing themselves in this absorbing sensory experience.”
Stories that can be experienced in DX17 include that of Jean Mills, who was an Aircraft Plotter with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force during the Second World War. Jean describes arriving at Duxford in 1941 and the sudden arrival of aircraft from all directions, returning from a dogfight. Excitement turned to shock as one aircraft nose-dived onto the airfield, killing the pilot. As Jean says in her interview: “…we then realised it wasn’t a great lark, it was quite a serious business we were in for.”
Visitors can also hear from Alan Tomkins and Gerry Massey, Art Director and Cameraman for the 1968 Battle of Britain film, who describe creating a film set at Duxford airfield and the challenge of creating the famous explosion of Duxford’s hangar. Alan explains: “…the big moment came and you think it’s never going to come and ‘bang!’ and all that happened were the doors blew off and the hangar didn’t go up. So everyone rushed to see and …didn’t realise that the whole place was live, it could have blown up at any minute so we all got ushered out and the experts went in…they said ‘right, ready to go again’ and so we all went back to our hidey holes to watch and it went and it was quite something.”
Image: ©IWM Artist Nick Ryan with his DX17 sound sculpture which opens at IWM Duxford on 16 June. Credit: IWM Nick Ryan
A novel new technology has been engineered for the project by mechatronic engineer Sean Malikides that allows audio to be encoded into the 100 light sources and then decoded by a receiver into audible signals.
The system is based on the principle behind the ‘Photophone’: a telecommunications device that allowed transmission of speech on a beam of light, invented jointly by Alexander Graham Bell and his assistant Charles Sumner Tainter in 1880. Ryan worked with Malikides to develop a fully analogue electronic transmitter and receiver circuit that makes it possible to transmit speech through the light beams that illuminate DX17’s surface and enable people to decode the signals as sound with a battery-powered handheld device.
Ryan collaborated with design studio Kin and designer/engineer Tom Cecil to develop DX17’s sculpturalform. Taking the size of a Spitfire as a reference of scale, the team designed a10m x 6m aluminium spaceframe structure with a 3D mesh fabric covering. A selection of recognisable aerodynamic shapes(winglets of a Eurofighter Typhoon, the exhaust manifold of the Spitfire) found in aircraft in Duxford’s collection evolve DX17’s basic delta into a hybridised shape that is both evocative and futuristic. DX17 was hand -built by Tom Cecil (by coincidence the grandson of Wing Commander Rupert Cecil) and Kin in Tom Cecil’s workshop in Leyton.
Ryan also collaborated with Kin to design the receiver object that holds the receiver electronics and isused by visitors to decode light into sound. The receiver’s form is inspired by various metallic, leather and Bakelite objects found in vintage aircraft including avionics, pilot oxygen masks and headsets and are manufactured using 3d printing technology.
Kin project managed and produced the project and, alongside Tom Cecil and his team, installed the sculpture inside a purpose-built structure on the hanger base at Duxford.
DX17 was created with the generous support of Bowers & Wilkins. The installation uses 14 x Bowers and Wilkins 685 S2 loudspeakers and its P5 Series 2 model headphones. DX17 was also generously supported by MOTU whose AVB system is used to distribute audio to the sculpture.
DX17 is open to the public until Saturday 30 September and is included in general admission to IWM Duxford.
The title DX17 references the centenary narrative (1917-2017). DX was also the airfield identification code for Duxford during the Second World War. It forms part of the Airfield Signal Square, visible from high above in the sky. The two consonants are quickly interpreted as a synonym for the museum and the airfield. DX as a verb describes the activity of listening in on long distance (short wave) radio linking the radiophonic narrative of the installation and the aural connection it provides to the long-distant past.
Nick Ryan is a multi-disciplinary artist and composer exploring the use of sound and music to representinformation, physical sensation, materiality and place. He is widely recognised as a leading thinker in relation to the future of sound for creating unique, immersive and highly conceptual audio experiences that push the boundaries of audio.
His work involves applying emerging technology to the process of creating and experiencing audio,introducing people to new ways of thinking about sound. His novel sound installations, bespoke instruments, generative music compositions and interactive audio experiences explore ways of representing information,language, story and perception solely through the act of listening.
Nick is the recipient of a BAFTA for Technical Innovation, a Motion Picture Sound Editors Golden Reel for sound editing and holds an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Plymouth University. He is currently an artist in residence at Somerset House studios.
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